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There Are Lessons in Our Old Textbooks, Even When They’re Wrong

A historian explores what was left out of the history taught to him at St. Mark’s decades ago.
United State History Book
Cover Model: The author’s 50-year-old textbook from St. Mark’s John Gay

There Are Lessons in Our Old Textbooks, Even When They’re Wrong

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As a history professor, I’ve always relied on two brief lines to guide me in what I’m doing and why I do it. The first famously came from Harry Truman: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” That’s the best aspect of the history business, the discovery of new information that can take on new importance. The second has been a little harder to pin down to anyone in particular, variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Satchel Paige, and Yogi Berra, among others: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” Whoever said it, the warning makes good sense, a reminder to remain skeptical, always questioning the received wisdom about the past before it gets ossified into “fact.”

Both of those notions came back to me recently, not from any current college students but from fellow students of long ago, in an email chain started by four of my high school classmates at St. Mark’s. They had been listening to the podcast of the Nikole Hannah-Jones-led 1619 Project, from the New York Times, and they had experienced varying degrees of surprise and disgust in hearing about the depth of racism running through American society, from the early 17th century right up to our own time. They were certainly not naive about the pervasiveness of racism, but the enormity of the story about race as the central theme in American history seemed almost overwhelming. So one of them suggested expanding the group to include me.

“Can we loop Nobles into this? Yo, Nobles!”—a wake-up call done with the old soccer-teammate habit of calling each other by last names, still a form of address some 50-plus years after we graduated, in 1966. The original four in the chain—Kelley, Mitchell, Nye, and Wiedemann—apparently wanted me in the loop because I was the alleged expert, now professor emeritus of American history, recently retired from the classroom and administrative meetings but still writing, still active in the field.

I never claim to be an expert—history is far too complicated for that—but I had spent a long time teaching and writing about most of the issues covered in the 1619 Project. While I wasn’t shocked by the big picture presented, I found some fresh details in the telling, some history I didn’t know, which is always welcome. And while I wasn’t surprised that some professional historians had quibbles about parts of the project, I was still impressed with the impact 1619 had on the reading and podcast public. But at the time 1619 appeared, I was involved in writing a book dealing with slavery and racism in the antebellum North, and I had probably become a bit too self-absorbed in my work to pay adequate attention to the project’s immediate impact on my classmates—until one of them asked, a bit impatiently, “Where is Nobles in this discussion?”

But the rest of the same guy’s post got to me, and it has stuck in my head ever since: “Hard to believe,” he wrote, “that we were at one of the best prep schools in the country, and taking ADVANCED PLACEMENT HISTORY … and we never learned all this.”

And so we had been, all of us in AP U.S. history in 1964-65, our junior year at our all-boys (and, except for one Black student, all-White) private school in Dallas. Back then, St. Mark’s may not have had quite the prestige it has now, and certainly no one ever mentioned privilege. Instead, the school gave us the almost matter-of-fact reassurance that as good students, we’d get into good colleges—which we did: Harvard, Brown, Oberlin, and Swarthmore for my fellow emailers; Princeton for me. St. Mark’s also had some terrific teachers, most of them Ivy League grads somehow seduced to Dallas, none of them better or more important to me than the one who taught our AP class, Ted Whatley, a thirtysomething Texan not yet 10 years out of Harvard, who had recently come back to teach at St. Mark’s. I realized long ago that there was something about his style and substance that helped inspire me to become a historian.

But the bigger question now is the substance of the course we took at the time, and what we learned, or didn’t learn, or learned that “just ain’t so.” And that’s what I set out to explore—for my classmates, for myself.

It has been a long time. I have no recollection of what actually happened in class, what Whatley said to us or what, if anything, we said to him. I do recall that he had a slyly contrarian stance I found intriguing in a teacher, a quiet way of letting us know that some people in power weren’t always worthy of unquestioned respect. Perhaps we picked up on that. We were all well-scrubbed, khaki-slacked students, but my four friends were a little more intellectually focused and politically progressive than I was. Well disposed to accepting the status quo, I had my mind mostly on playing sports, dating my Hockaday girlfriend, and generally gliding along in life. Still, I don’t know that any of us raised especially challenging questions about slavery or race or social justice in class. We just took good notes and hoped to get a good grade on the AP test.

I do know the textbook we used, though, The United States: The History of a Republic (1957), by Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron, a strong trio of authors. The lead author, Hofstadter, of Columbia University, was one of the most eminent American historians of the time, an influential public intellectual whose writings had traction far beyond academia. In the mid-1960s, there was no better book for AP U.S. history than the one we called HMA.

But what a sense of disappointment, maybe even betrayal, to read it now and reflect on what it sought to teach us then.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but 1619 will do. That was the year, HMA noted, of the creation of Virginia’s first representative assembly, the House of Burgesses, and “from those simple beginnings arose the form of colonial government that endured until the Revolution.” It wasn’t until two pages later that the book also mentioned, almost in passing, the “Negro workers, who had been present in Virginia as early as 1619”—another sort of “simple beginnings,” perhaps, but the roots of slavery didn’t seem to rival the rise of democracy.

Turning north to consider 17th-century New England, the text talked about how “Puritanism has exercised such an enormous influence on American civilization,” but it had nothing to say about how those godly Puritans made war on Indigenous people in the region, resulting in the dispossession and devastation of most of the Native American population by the end of the century. HMA did have something to say about the 19th-century removal of Native peoples from the Southeast but no reference to the numbers of people force-marched or lives lost on the Trail of Tears. The anti-Native American prejudices of the president who most aggressively promoted the removal process, Andrew Jackson, could be explained as “more a criticism of his limited outlook than of his sincerity.” In any event, “the spoliation of the Indian lands continued … and millions of fertile acres were opened up for white exploitation.”

It was the exploitation of enslaved Black labor, of course, that made the most of those fertile acres. HMA admitted that slavery had been harsh and inhumane in some instances, “but there is abundant testimony to show that the cruel master was the exception—not the rule.” Indeed, the book took care to discuss “the difficulties of the planter’s position,” pointing to the challenges of the chattel slavery system: “Since it required the nicest judgment to maintain a balance between laxness and severity in the management of the slaves, the best of masters had to apply methods of discipline that might be offensive to his own inclinations.” But in the next sentence, HMA looked to “a brighter side of the picture,” the notion that conditions of life and labor among enslaved people weren’t so bad after all. “It seems true enough,” the section on “The Slave’s World” concluded, “that many white southerners treated their slaves affectionately and that many slaves responded to this treatment with loyalty and devotion.”

Nineteenth-century activists who challenged such a benign view of slavery came in for criticism or dismissal in the pages of HMA. “Public opinion stigmatized the abolitionists as a band of misguided bigots,” even “anti-slavery terrorists,” and the authors seemed to take that position themselves. William Lloyd Garrison, the White journalist whose newspaper, The Liberator, HMA described as “an incendiary periodical of extreme abolition,” was himself “neurotic and wayward … tolerant on occasion yet fanatically uncompromising about his cherished beliefs.” The book made him seem a threat to his own cause, arguing that “his fanaticism frightened the moderate anti-slavery people,” and thus perhaps issuing a veiled warning to students about the results of radicalism in the current day.

But that was just the main White abolitionist. Now-iconic Black figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman didn’t get such negative treatment in the text; they simply never got mentioned at all.

It’d be easy to continue with other examples, but it’d also be like shooting belly-up fish in the historical barrel. The point is clear: HMA gave us a picture of the past with the sharp edges filed down, a history lesson flowing forward in the mainstream, a moral story rewarding moderation of thought and deed and confining social conflict to the fringes, with rebels and radicals either chided or omitted in the pages of the text, written off or written out of history. In the academic profession, this picture of the past had been called “consensus” history. In my own terms, I call it historical comfort food.

And that’s what Republican politicians now want in Texas—where the stars at night may be big and bright, but where the GOP is only big. They’re taking a throwback approach to teaching history, where slavery and other forms of oppression are portrayed as an aberration from the upbeat national narrative, where nobody has to feel uneasy about the past, and, above all, where nobody talks about 1619. It’s not the newness of the history you don’t know, but the avoidance of the history you don’t want to know. It’s a recipe for classroom mediocrity, for comfort-food history that doesn’t provide enough intellectual roughage for sustenance.

But that diet won’t work in the long run, because the history people experience in their own lives isn’t always comforting, and they will eventually see the limits, even the hypocrisy, of what they’ve been fed.

I think of my own experience—and that of my classmates and the thousands of other American high school students who took AP U.S. history in the same year, 1964-65. Maybe we didn’t raise enough questions at the time, but we have since then. Most of us graduated in 1966, went to college, and over the next few years saw our world change dramatically. The highlights are still familiar, even painfully so. In 1968, the year started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and then came the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police beatings of protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and finally the election of Richard Nixon. The next year saw Nixon take office, telling the world that “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” while his military carried on ever-bloodier campaigns in Vietnam, and the year after that he expanded the war into Cambodia. In the two weeks following that, White college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State and Black students by the Mississippi state police at Jackson State. And there we were, graduating from college in May 1970, almost exactly five years after we took the AP U.S. history test, living in a dangerous and discomforting country. And the discomfort didn’t stop there, of course, but kept recurring year by year, right to the present day.

And so I go back to my classmate’s original question, “Where is Nobles in this discussion?” I’m right here with my friends in the email chain, another White guy in his early 70s, stereotypically entitled, maybe expected, to be conservative and complacent—but not feeling that way at all, just like them. Ted Whatley is with us, too, now in his late 80s but the recent author of a good and honest—and prize-winning—book about his own ancestors’ experiences as East Texas slaveholders during the Civil War. Our teacher is still a student, just like us.

We’ve lived a long time, learned a lot over the years, and look forward to learning more, however we get it. I studied history for a living, and my classmates followed different careers, but I like to think we all took something valuable away from AP U.S. history—not so much what the text told us, but what Whatley showed us: the ability to be skeptical without becoming cynical, the willingness to appreciate the history we don’t (yet) know, and the wisdom to shed some of the stuff we now know “just ain’t so.” After more than half a century, there’s no better continuing education than that.

Gregory Nobles is professor emeritus of history at Georgia Tech and the author of The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, to be published in 2022.

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